Three surfers re-write Mentawais surfing history.
In each of these instances word quickly spread through the surfing world and surfers headed – first in trickles, then in swarms – to the new locations, each hoping to get their own slice of the magic. The hordes of subsequent surfers often pushing the original pioneers deeper into the remote regions of Indonesia to discover even more great waves.
However, every now and again an expedition didn’t tip-toe into the dark but rather, took a giant leap into the unknown. The distance they leapt measured by how long it took other travellers to discover their footsteps.
In the following case, the pioneers were three young surfers from Sydney who set off to Indonesia in 1980. They surfed the Mentawai Islands a full ten years before Lance Knight – after whom Lance’s Right was eponymously named – journeyed there. In truth, the time it took for others to discover the Mentawais says as much about the group’s ability to keep their discovery quiet as it does their pioneering spirit.
We flew from Sydney to Jakarta and on to Padang. From Padang we had to get permission from various authorities to go out there, because tourists just didn’t go out there. That took a while because we were getting sent from department to department and Chris was the only one who spoke some Indonesian.
We got a ferry from Padang and stayed at a village on the lee side of the islands. We had to try to convince someone to take us to the ocean side. It took several days and we had to go to every department again, the miltary department, the police, because no-one had seen surfing before and they didn’t know what to do with us. They were like: “Where are you going? What are you doing”.
Chris had some photos of surfing and he showed them: “This is what we are doing.”
Once we got permission we then approached one of the locals and said that we were interested in hiring a boat, and we got this guy who had a dugout with an outboard and he took us in that. We headed out through the strait between North and South Pagai islands and when we were getting toward the ocean we started getting bits of swell. Then we came around the corner and we were in the ocean. It probably took a couple of days from the village till we got out to the ocean and found waves. We had Admirality maps to help us look for waves. Chris was in charge of that and basically he only wanted to surf lefthanders so we looked for likely places.
When you first found Macaronis did you know you were onto something special?
The first time we saw it it was a bit blown out so it didn’t look that good. Then we came back and as soon as we pulled up into the bay it was looking really good.
How big was it?
Six foot. Overhead. I wasn’t a very good surfer then so it was pretty heavy.
And you stayed out at Macaroni’s?
Yeah, Chris was looking for a perfect lefthander and, well, here it is! There was no village there but we found an old fisherman’s hut on the point. It was really primitive with no walls, and half a floor, but it had a roof. We had a couple of tarpaulins with us so we rigged up a couple of walls out of the tarpaulins.
How did your boards go?
They went well for the other guys (laughs). Chris made all our boards. Or at least he made mine and his own. I had one board, the other guys had two. They were better surfers than me. Scott was a very good surfer.
Before I went I made the mistake of going to a surfshop and telling them that I was going to Indonesia. The guy at the surfshop said ‘oh yeah, big surf over there, you’ll need a big fin’. The fin he gave me was huge, like a keel, I couldn’t turn the thing. It took me ages to figure out that it was the fin. At the time I thought it was just me.
Well at least you had something to blame, that’s always good!
Yeah. We also had no booties. The first wave I took off on at Macaroni’s I hit the bottom. I just got launched and hit the reef. Cut my leg a bit. Eventually all the cuts got infected. If we got injured we were days away from any help. If we needed to get back to the village it would’ve taken at least two days in the boat. There was a logging operation on the island run by Germans. So we thought that if we got desperate we’d get them to fly us out (laughs).
And did any of you speak any German?
How long did you stay on the point in total?
I stayed a couple of weeks. After a couple of weeks staying on the point we packed up and kept looking for waves. Then I left the other two guys and kept travelling while they went back to Macaroni’s for a few more weeks.
When you went in search of more waves which direction did you go?
So you would’ve gone near Lance’s Right?
Yeah, we went past it.
Were you aware there was a good wave there?
No, it was a bit onshore at the time. We went in and stayed on the beach but we didn’t surf it, we just kept going.
Did you find many other waves to the north?
Yeah, but nothing like Macaroni's. We surfed a few waves though.
What did you call the wave?
We called it P-land. The actual name of the point is Pasangan, and there’s G-land, so we called it P-land. It’s hardly original but there it is (laughs). I reckon it’s better than Macaroni’s though. Macaronis is so American.
Have you been back to the Mentawais?
No, never. Chris went back out there the following year and stayed in the same hut. I don’t think he had the same experience. There was only two of them and I don’t think the surf was as good. He went back again four or five years ago and was shocked by the number of people out there.
It was ten years between when you guys surfed it and Lance Knight passed through. Other waves had large crowds within five years of them being discovered. Why wasn’t that the case for Macaroni’s?We were very good at keeping a secret (laughs). Although I couldn’t say anything, Chris would’ve killed me. He said we’re not allowed to tell anyone. Like no-one. So I got home and had to tell people: “No. No waves”.
Actually, I left Chris and Scott and kept travelling up through Asia, but I gave Chris the film. When I got home he had developed it and taken out every photo with a wave in it. Friends and family were saying to me: “It looks like you had a great trip, shame you didn’t get any waves though”. And I couldn’t say anything to any of them (laughs).
Do you have any thoughts on the current state of the Mentawais?
Well that’s one of the reasons why I wouldn’t go back, I’d be disappointed I expect. Chris has told me that he pulled into Macaroni’s and there was about five boats there. They were all chucking out five to ten mad-keen surfers.
You don’t think you guys should get some sort of priority treatment because you discovered it?
Ha, you tell guys that’ve paid $5,000 that I’m going next (laughs). I expect they think we’ve had our share.
Does that trip have special significance for you?
Yeah it does. Not that we knew it was going to turn out to be the place it is. When you’re twenty you go ‘I’ve done that’, and it’s not till years later that you reflect on it. But it was a very good trip. Very intense though. We kept it quiet for a long time. Like we didn’t come home and say we’ve found this great wave and plastering photos everywhere. One or two of the photos have actually been used in an article but it was with a fictional story. No one knew where they were taken. Not even the country.
What are the other guys doing now?
I haven’t seen Scott for years but he worked in the finance industry back in the ‘80s and was quite successful. I think he’s semi-retired on the north coast. Chris lives in Canberra but he jetsets all over the world giving lectures. He’s got a house down at Bawley point so he surfs down there a bit. (Chris Goodnow is a Professor at ANU and is one of the world’s leading immunologists. This year he was inducted into The Royal Society, a community of eminent scientists established in 1660.)
I work as a doctor in the local hospital here in Nowra. I still surf Green Island occasionally.